Having last year fallen in love with Italy, I am now on a mission to see it ALL! The lesser visited Puglia, seemed like a good next stop for a more authentic Italian experience.
Known for it’s whitewashed towns and having some of the best beaches in Italy, it was difficult to work out where to stay. Scattered with Masserias throughout its countryside, I settled instead on Polignano a Mare, an idyllic town perched high up on a 20-meter high limestone cliff above crystal clear waters, living truly up to it’s name ‘at sea’.
Our room overlooked the sea and waking up to the sound of the waves in the morning was a real treat. The old town itself, while small, contains enough small winding walkways to lose yourself, but before you know it you will have reached one of the three panoramic terraces with breathtaking views over the coastline and it will all have been worthwhile.
Polignano a Mare is home to the famous Grotta Palazzese restaurant which I booked in advance (if you’re planning to be in the area, make sure you book ahead) having dreamed of eating in a cave ever since I first set eyes on this place. The restaurant opens at 7.30pm and tables are assigned on a first come basis, so it’s worth arriving on time to get a table sitting out to the sea. While a little pricey for the area, the restaurant is truly spectacular both in setting and quality of food and is definitely an experience that will stay with you for years to come.
Having a car is essential in Puglia to explore what the area has to offer. We set off for Lecce in the south of Puglia, famous for it’s baroque buildings. Located between the two coasts, locals check the direction of the wind in the morning before deciding whether to head to the beaches on the East or West. The centre of the town contains ruins of a Roman theatre and amphitheatre, but it’s the little lanes and baroque buildings which make this an appealing place to visit.
To the west of Lecce is the small town of Gallipolli, situated on a tiny island and connected to the mainland by a 17th century bridge, and surrounded almost entirely by defensive walls from the 14th century. Gallipolli is filled with a labyrinth of small winding streets leading to the wider seafront promenade and it was here that we found ourselves perched overlooking Gallipolli’s sandy shores, ready for a Puglian lunch. Looking out to the sea is the perfect preparation for some of the freshest fish accompanied by cheeses and fresh pasta.
Continuing south in search of the picture perfect white sandy beaches and crystal clear blue waters, Le Maldive del Salento had to be the next stop, which upon arrival we noticed could very easily be mistaken for it’s more famous namesake. Lido’s are a big thing in this area, allowing you to rent a sunbed and have the convenience of food, drinks and bathrooms, but we were just stopping by so we unrolled our towels and settled down for an afternoon of ogling over the beauty of Puglia.
The following day was spent a little closer to home, the morning exploring the windy narrow alleyways of Monopoli (apparently they’ve heard the joke about the board game). The town has conveniently signed out a walking route to take in the sights without getting lost and following this we explored the fortified sea front walls, the castle and the tiny harbour with the characteristic blue and red fishing boats.
Further down the coast is scattered with postcard worthy beaches. Again you can head to a lido if you’re making a day of it, but instead we drove until we found a deserted one and set ourselves down for some sunning and a dip in the inviting (yet quite chilly) blue waters.
Head back to Polignano a Mare for the afternoon, by which time the sun would be hitting the beach in the town and all of the locals will have flocked here just in time to soak up some true Italian afternoon sunshine. Enclosed on both sides by cliffs from which people dive all the way through to sunset, it’s a beach like no other. Home to the annual Red Bull cliff diving competition, it’s an experience that I wasn’t quite daredevil enough for just yet, but very impressive to watch those who are.
Having explored this relatively unknown area of Italy, I find myself even more in love with this country. It felt like a real treat not to be surrounded by other tourists all the time and allowed me to appreciate not only the beauty and gems of Puglia, but also the friendly warmth of the locals, ready and waiting to show you their Perfect Puglia.